The Irish Spirit

One shanty house on the corner of Second and Robin streets in Dunkirk was the school and the other served as the chapel. Such were the conditions in 1851 when the Rev. Peter Colgan, born in Ireland, came to take charge of the parish, build a church, and serve all Catholics in the surrounding area.

With no other church, this parish, Saint Mary’s, was considered the “mother church” for all others. Primarily Irish, this is how it was described in a record of Saint Mary’s from 1904 as well as from this columnist’s recently deceased Irish father, whose ancestry to the area dates to at least this period and includes family on the earliest Latin records of the church. Irish heritage and contributions of these immigrants, both locally and nationally is certainly what many had on their minds last week on Saint Patrick’s Day and is noteworthy to revisit.

Many Irish immigrants with back-breaking labor helped build the Erie Canal. Completed in 1825, it cleared the way for easier transportation of goods and opened the door to Western New York and points farther west for immigration and settlement, thus bringing the Irish along with other groups. The Irish presence is evident with a walk through Saint Mary’s Cemetery with such names as Culligan, Toomey, McDonald, McNamara, McDonough, Mahoney, Duggan, Mullane, Donovan, Daley, McCarthy, Murphy, Muldoon, O’Neil, Sullivan, Donahue, and a personal favorite, Burns – to name just a few.

Of course, there are other names in the cemetery because until 1902, Saint Mary’s was the burial place for Catholics of all nationalities in the Dunkirk and Fredonia vicinity, with the first parcels purchased in 1851.

According to the church’s 1904 record, a new map was made in 1903 due to another parcel purchase and to make the records less likely to be confused. In time, additional church cemeteries and parishes were created as other immigrant groups settled in the area, including Sacred Heart in 1857 on Ruggles St. in Dunkirk when the German population grew. Sadly, when this church was demolished over a hundred years later, it merged back again with Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the former Saint Mary’s.

Many Irish, choosing not to move west, remained in the New York City area and could just as easily be ancestors from another part of one’s Irish family line. Countless served in the Civil War on both the north and south, and as this columnist’s father also liked to say, “There would not have been much of a war if not for the Irish who fought on both sides.” Sadly, it was his own Irish great-grandfather who never came home from the war, leaving behind a wife and two sons and therefore has no grave in the Saint Mary’s Cemetery.

The Irish Brigade, made up of predominantly Irish Americans and Irish immigrants from the New York City area, is well known from the Civil War era including the battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg where they suffered great casualties. Made up of the 69th, 63rd, and 88th New York Infantry units, it was at Fredericksburg that the nickname of the “Fighting 69th” was coined by General Lee because of their valiant charge. Many of these men were Irish revolutionaries, set on gaining war experience with the intent of returning to Ireland to fight for independence from Britain, while others were willing to fight for newfound freedoms, particularly for Catholics.

The Irish “Fighting 69th” continued its fame into World War I and World War II. In the early 1900s, neighborhood regiments in the New York City area were formed as part of the New York National Guard. In 1917 when the United States entered the war, various regiments were combined into combat divisions in which the 69th became part of the Rainbow Division and was one of the first to be sent to war in Europe. Taking part in four major operations, they experienced mustard gas attacks and what is known as the “bloody march.”

Beginning the day after Christmas, a four-day march took them over 100 kilometers in frigid weather conditions without adequate gear to protect them from the elements. Their hobnail boots, not waterproof, shrunk and became brittle at night. They used their bayonets to cut open the front of the boots, which then exposed their toes to the snow. Joyce Kilmer, the famous poet from the 69th, as well as Father Duffy described this experience as “bloody tracks in the roadway.” Duffy said in part, “Men hiked with frozen feet and could be seen with their feet wrapped in burlap. Hands got so cold and frost-bitten that the rifles almost dropped from their fingers. Soldiers fell in the snow and arose and staggered on and dropped again.” Amazingly, this columnist’s own Irish grandfather from the other side of the family was a soldier of this regiment and as described in the book, “My Dear Jen,” simply wrote home that the weather was getting better and “We can look back at the winter now and laugh, but none of us will forget the experience.”

All of this Irish ancestral history is what filled my mind and nearly overwhelmed me with tears as I stood in the 69th Armory in Manhattan gazing into the World War I display case last weekend. Our Civil War fife and drum unit had marched in the annual New York City’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade representing the famed Irish Brigade. As overnight guests of the Armory, I was able to walk the same floors as my grandfather did nearly 100 years ago. Despite the revelry surrounding me from the traditional festivities of the 69th’s patron saint holiday with hundreds of people milling about, in my own silent world I seemed to feel the spirits of these past ancestors and could only feel gratitude for their sacrifices and my heritage.

Make it a good week and pass on the knowledge of your heritage in your family. Remember, today’s stories become yesteryear news, some of which can be fun and humorous. Certainly, the story of going to the city in Civil War garb is unique. Playing in Union Square with people milling about is one thing, but envision the clash of two worlds when riding the subway with some in hoop skirts and others in Union blue uniforms armed with fifes, drums, and over 100 rifles with bayonets. The 30 degree weather will only be a distant and fond memory when wearing the same wool this summer in 100 degree Gettysburg weather.

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